I'd had the cold for a few days, the sore throat was almost gone, by Saturday morning I was just left with a thick head and a runny nose, and on the principle that symptoms above the neck can't harm you I decided to go. So at 5am Jan and I scrape the ice from the car, throw the bags in the back and drive down the foggy motorways to Oxford, finding the Prince of Wales pub at Iffley, the start of the "Thames Trot" race at just after eight o'clock. Inside the pub it's a melee of lycra clad runners, cosily dressed supporters, coffee, bacon butties, and general friendly noise. The scheduled eight thirty start will be a bit delayed we're told, a few runners still to be ferried in from the station, but only by ten minutes. A few minutes to relax, get some coffee, leave Jan to have breakfast, she's driving on down to daughter Julia's in Reading and they'll meet me at the finish we hope, then we get the word and it's out into the cold of the car park for the briefing. "Not much to say guys, it's a bit muddy, you'll probably get wet up to the ankles but there's no flooding, have a good run", then the hooter sounds and a hundred and forty of us shuffle off down the lane to Iffley Lock and the river.
The Thames Path is a waymarked long distance trail, following (mostly) the banks of the river for 180 miles from Kemble in Gloucestershire to the Thames Barrier at Woolwich, and the race covers the 50 mile section from Oxford to Henley. This is its second year, last year the course was snow covered but today we have standard BBC "grey cloud" as the mist at the river edge blends seamlessly into the sky with temperatures just about positive. I don't want to aggravate my cold so I decide to take it very gently at first and settle down in the second half of the field with a group doing about 10 minute miles. I've never run a flat ultra before, so I've decided to walk for 5 minutes in every 45 to use some different muscles; as it turns out the course isn't completely flat, and the ground underfoot and natural obstacles mean that progress is nowhere near as uniform as on a solid surface so the tactic is probably not necessary, however I find that I enjoy the breaks so I might do it again. The first twenty miles are muddy paths through fields by the river. I somehow didn't expect so much mud. I would be better in trail shoes but that isn't what I've brought so no use worrying about it now. This isn't quite Rotherham calibre mud but it does stick, and the build up makes everyone's shoes progressively heavier. At Rotherham I always carry a blunt dinner knife to deal with it, but today I have to look for occasional "de-clodding" aids in the shape of gates, fences or tree roots - and being well down the field most of the good ones have been used already!
But I'm making steady progress, two checkpoints pass, we go through occasional villages with opportunities to get lost, I chat with various people as I catch up with them as you do in these events. I meet a guy who's entered the Lakeland 100, I say I'll see him there. Time passes and I see fewer runners as the field starts to spread out. After twenty miles or so the trail seems to leave the river but I can see a runner ahead in the distance and I follow. A mile or so later I catch up, it's a young lady now slowing up to check where she is; we look at the map and decide the turning back to river must be just a few dozen yards further on and so it is. She recognises my West Highland Way buff and it turns out she's Carrie who has entered the WHW for the first time this year, come down from Scotland to do this race. I don't know what she makes of this geriatric with the streaming eyes and snotty nose, but we carry on together for a while. Then I have one of those patches when everything seems to go right, we've just passed half way, we hit some firm grassy fields with no mud, and I feel great; I can go faster so I say to Carrie I'll see her when she catches me up later and press on ahead. I feel so good that I pay insufficient attention to the route, an apparent fence barrier forces me rightwards, I follow a long track and end up on a road with no Thames Path signs, I follow my nose left along the road but still no signs so I stop to admit I must be wrong - and as three other runners including Carrie have followed me they soon catch up. We get out the map and find we can rejoin the route just about at the 27 mile checkpoint - my little detour will have added about a half a mile on to our day's activity.
When we run into the checkpoint I have two surprises; first, Jan and Julia have turned up there to give me some encouragement, and second they don't seem at all concerned by the direction we have come in from - we've seen runners come into here from at least three directions, they say - the marshal is unperturbed, he seems to think it's pretty normal. I pick some sausage rolls and fruitcake - the food on this event is rather good, and tell the ladies I'll see them at the finish, assuming that you can find it, adds the marshal as I jog off.
This is at Goring, and from here the trail starts to get much more interesting. First there are hills that crowd the river, forcing the trail to gain height and go over some undulations, maybe a hundred feet or so but a welcome change from the flatlands, then a final up and a lovely long downhill into Pangbourne, over the bridge and back to the river bank, now through meadows with Saturday afternoon walkers as the sun finally starts to shine. Long views ahead now, and my slow start is paying off, I start to pass people, but each one takes a while, I see them ahead way in the distance, they get oh so slowly closer until I can catch and eventually pass them. Another checkpoint comes up, 36 miles, the distance being reeled in. Apart from a raw throat from having breathed in so much cold air I still feel good, I'm prepared to get tired now so I push on a bit harder. I'm still walking every 45 minutes but getting back to near 10 minute miles in between. All through the Reading area it's a good surfaced track; I thought this would be hard on the feet at this stage but it's welcome after all the mud early on though it's a weird place to be running an ultra, mud spattered runners passing the smartly dressed dog walkers in an urban park. Then the city disappears and the final checkpoint comes up at Sonning, just 6 miles to go.
I remember the banana milkshake I've been carrying for over 40 miles and it goes down a treat, a quick phone call to the ladies to say I'm on the last lap, and on we go. I catch another runner, the only one I can see, we chat a bit, decide we'll probably both make it to the end faster together than either of us will alone, and for the first time start to think about the time. Nine hours looks comfortable now I say, eight and a half might just be on says my companion, and in the way it happens when you run together and with a purpose, gradually the speed inches up. A few more muddy bits lest we forget what went before, a couple of country lanes, some fields, it's hurting now but it doesn't matter this late in the day, two long boardwalk bridges and we're on to the final hard towpath with the buildings of Henley in view. We wonder where the finish is, can see the church a few hundred yards away, can't be any further than that, then suddenly there it is, the white flags barely a hundred yards away across the park on our left. I glance at my watch, 8 hours 27, it's going to be OK, could crawl home in 3 minutes from here. 8-28-17 is the final judgement, 38th place, done.
The girl at the finish is asking me my tee-shirt size but I'm concentrating so hard on the coffee and fruitcake on the same table that she has to ask three times before it registers. The food on this trip really has been good. In fact all round it's been a really well-organised event. Jan and Julia are waiting, and I get the ecstasy of inactivity curled up in the back of the car on the way to Reading, before a long shower and a long-anticipated visit to the Italian restaurant. First ultra of 2010, great day out, I'm looking forward to the rest of the year!
I found out later that Carrie finished as second-placed lady - well done!!